On the Group-differentiated Rights of Ethnic Minorities in Their Mother Tongue Education in Europe ——A Case Study of the Sami People in Norway
September 28,2016   By:chinahumanrights.org
Bateer Chen (photo: Zhao Yifan)

On the Group-differentiated Rights of Ethnic Minorities in Their Mother Tongue Education in Europe
——A Case Study of the Sami People in Norway
Bateer Chen
Professor of Nankai University
There are about 300 million indigenous people in the world, distributed in more than 70 countries across the world, using 4,000 different languages. In the end of the 15th century, European countriesembarked on the colonization of other parts of the world. Since then, with the deepening of globalization and acceleration of modernization and urbanization in developing countries, the resultingflow of domestic and international immigrantshas made indigenous people and ethnic minorities there vulnerable politically, economically, socially and culturally. In particular, their language, culture and traditional knowledgeare on the brink of extinction.Language is the tool of human communication, and the medium to promote cognitive development. For each ethnic group, its language embodies its unique world view, philosophy, culture and way of thinking, and is therefore part of the precious cultural heritage of the human race. There is a close relation between language and education since language is not only the medium of education, it is also an important part of education in its own right.In this sense, formal and regular education determines whether a language can be maintained and developed or otherwise becomes extinct. Language is also an important human rights issue: language as human right, which concerns one’s mother tongue, involves not only the right to identify with one or more month tongues, but also the right to use one or more mother tongues as the medium of education and public services. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as numerous international human rights conventions provide protection to all language groups and the languages of different communities. In view of the trend that the languages of indigenous people and ethnic minorities are weakened or even disappear in some cases, the international community and the governments of many countries have adopted measures to maintain and guarantee the group-differentiated rightsto mother tongue education. A case in point is the Sami people of Norway, who are the only indigenous peopleas well as the largest ethnic minority in Europe. With a population of about 40,000,Sami peopleaccount for 0.9% of the total population of the country. They had been living in northern Europe for almost 10,000 years before the ancestors of today’s main ethnic groups in Europe first set foot there. However, with the influx of peoples who later came to dominate Europe, Sami people were forced to move to regions near the Arctic Circle and Christianity began to spread among the Sami people.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans launched a "witch hunting" movement specifically targeting traditional Sami Shamanism and imposed on Sami people religious assimilation through education. In the more than 100 years after the middle of the 19th century, the Sami language and culture underwent "a severe winter". As the Norwegian authorities implementeda strict "one country,one culture" policy, Sami languagewas discriminatedagainst and Sami students were not permitted to usethe Sami language in school or even when they talked with their parents. However, Norway and other countries in the region started to question their assimilation policy toward the Sami people, spurred by the "pan-Sami" movement that emerged in the Nordic countries echoing to the global indigenous movements after World War II. Eventually they replaced that policy with new policies facilitating the the Sami’s group-differentiated right to Sami language education. In particular, these countries have established Sami parliaments, enacted the Sami Act and the Sami Language Act, as well as offered Sami language coursesin primary and secondary schools, in a bid to effectively guarantee the Sami people’s right to mother tongue education through legislative, institutional, financial and regulatory means. 
Keywords: indigenous peoples; the Sami people; mother tongue; The Group-differentiated Rights of Ethnic Minorities in Their Mother Tongue Education
Bateer Chen: Professor, Zhou Enlai School of Government at Nankai University.